Brittany Maynard: A Tragedy, But Not a Controversy

Brittany Maynard's brave advocacy during what may be her final days has captivated the country. Maynard, 29, a newlywed, and terminally ill, moved with her family to Oregon to access the state's death-with-dignity law. Commentators call her decision "controversial." In fact, public opinion has been consistent for years: A majority support the right of the terminally ill to decide when and how they die.

[Disclosure: I have conducted numerous polls -- some cited below -- for the organization Compassion & Choices, which has been working closely with Brittany Maynard and her family. Yet most of the polls I cite are from independent outlets.]

Clear, consistent majority support for death with dignity

Far from divisive, Gallup has shown decades of remarkably consistent majority support for allowing doctors to end terminally ill patients' lives at their request (emphasis mine). The Oregon law Brittany Maynard says she will follow, and other similar laws in effect or up for debate across the country, would not allow doctors to "end the patient's life," but to assist a patient by providing a self-administering prescription. So a majority of voters support an even broader law than those being discussed. There is no movement to allow euthanasia--where doctors themselves end patients' lives.

In late 2013, Pew also showed consistent majority support for "allowing a patient to die" in some circumstances. While they note support has dropped slightly over the past few decades, their question wording is not very specific; it makes no mention of the terminally ill standard or of patients needing to request assistance. Interestingly, despite Ross Douthat's recent claim to the contrary, Pew reports only a small difference across party lines.

Beyond support for the right to death with dignity as a concept, majorities also want this right for themselves. Pew found a majority (57%) saying they would personally tell their doctor "to stop treatment so they could die" if were terminally ill and in pain.

Support for death-with-dignity laws around the country

Majorities around the country support the death-with-dignity laws debated in each state. Polls in Hawaii (of doctors), California, Montana, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Vermont (where death-with-dignity became legal without much fanfare) show consistent, clear support. Note in these polls the question wording more closely tracks the actual bills under discussion, which are quote narrowly proscribed: allowing doctors, upon request, to provide life-ending prescriptions for terminally ill, mentally competent patients to self-administer.

The narrow defeat of Massachusetts's death-with-dignity measure in 2012 teaches us an additional lesson. Opponents of the measure outspent supporters 5-to-1 in the final weeks, and with far slicker ads. And even in heavily Catholic Massachusetts, as the New York Times reports, the controversy was in the details--requiring patients to consult a psychiatrist in some but not all cases, or to notify their families in advance of their decision. The controversy was not in the core value itself, which consistently enjoyed majority support in public statewide polling. Changes in the bill language--and supporters' campaign tactics--could likely yield a very different outcome next time.

Almost like requiring background checks for gun purchases, or allowing the use of birth control, death with dignity is an issue with consistent majority support that somehow endures being described as "controversial." And with all three issues, a vocal minority has been given a disproportionately outsized platform.

So perhaps given the Massachusetts measure, or other wedge issue debates, state legislators around the country feel the safer move is to simply do nothing. But far from safe, this course puts so many in daily anguish, as patients and their families struggle with physical and emotional depletion. And like another universal family issue--child care--the absence of a strong national policy conversation makes these struggles solitary. What could unify us, in fact isolates us.

Courageous Brittany Maynard has started to bring people together. Her website has attracted 3.5 million unique visitors, and over 300,000 people have signed an online card to wish her well. On November 1, she plans to end her life. She has said: "I won't live to see the death-with-dignity movement reach critical mass, but I call on you to carry it forward." I hope legislators and political groups gather their own courage and heed her call.